Top AFL teams duel in Ashland
Envision two rams lining up a yard apart from each other and locking horns for 48 minutes.
That is what the Anthracite Football League clash between Tamaqua and North Schuylkill could resemble come Friday night.
Both schools have been playing well this season, with Tamaqua (5-0, 3-0 AFL) atop the AFL conference standings.
The Spartans are coming into their match-up against Tamaqua with a 4-1 record, which is their league mark as well. That means the match-up between the Raiders and the Spartans have some pretty big AFL implications.
North Schuylkill bounced back after a loss to Schuylkill Haven with a win over previously undefeated Marian. The Spartans were missing six starters for their game against the 'Canes and five of them returned for their match-up with the Colts. Needless to say, when the Spartans are healthy they're a pretty tough team to beat. Before their loss to Schuylkill Haven, North Schuylkill put up some numbers that have yet to be duplicated since the then-Anthracite 8 started back in 2002. The Spartans reeled off 33 straight regular season wins, 30 straight Anthracite League victories, and won three straight AFL titles.
However, the Raiders are 5-0 for the first time since 2009 and would like to keep that zero in the loss column.
This contest is a match-up between two very similar football teams in the way they play the game of football. Both run the ball well, play special teams well, and play hard-nosed defense. The difference could turn out to be which team makes the big play and which team makes the least amount of mistakes.
"There's a couple things we need to do to put ourselves in position come Friday night," said Tamaqua coach Sam Bonner. "First, we have to be flawless when it comes to making mistakes or turning the ball over. Two, we have to make sure we don't make any mistakes in the special teams game and capitalize if they make a mistake. Finally, we have to be able to make some big plays in the passing game when the opportunity presents itself. Of course we want to the run the ball well too and we expect to do that, but with a team like North Schuylkill you have to play as mistake free as possible."
It's interesting to see what Spartans' coach Rick Geist will have up his sleeve for the Raiders. Last week against Marian, Geist shifted some things around to try and give his squad the best opportunity to beat the Colts. Starting quarterback Matt Smarkanic moved to full-ack, freshman back-up quarterback Bob Grigas played under center, and every down back Matt Gownley (419 yards) was only used in short-yardage situations. Gownley has been hampered by a foot injury, so Geist used the sure-handed runner to punch the ball in for the Spartans in goal-line scenarios.
Geist could go back to Smarkanic, maybe not on every snap, but in spots where the Spartans are forced into passing situations. Grigas attempted just three passes against the Colts, completing none of them. Grigas did earn some valuable experience against a tough Colts defense though, so who knows what look the Raiders will get come tomorrow night.
One thing the Raiders can be sure of is that the Spartans will look to get the ball to the multi-dimensional Ethan Motsney. Motsney has rushed for 562 yards on the year and has basically scored in every which way possible. He has scored on the ground, through the air, on a kick return, and punt return.
"We've been keying on Motsney now for the last three seasons," said Bonner. "He's a special athlete. They use him as their east-west guy and we have to make sure we keep tabs on him all night. He's the kind of guy that you can stay with the whole game and can still make plays. It's really important for us not let him burn us whether it be on offense or special teams."
The Raiders will also be looking to get big plays from their multi-threat player Dalton Nunemacher. The senior has been responsible for 14 touchdowns this season, which is best in the TN area. Jake Love will also be counted on to carry the load in the running game. Love has emerged as a solid tailback this season, leading the Raiders with 455 yards on the ground. Throw in speedster Tyler Hope, who has amassed over 300 yards rushing and is averaging a freakish 13.77 yards per carry, and that makes for a pretty solid backfield.
Challenges present themselves all over for both teams come Friday night. Who can make the big play? Who can make the least amount of mistakes? These are the kind of questions that surround this week's match-up between Tamaqua and North Schuylkill.